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More candidates express views on issues

On Tuesday evening at Stanly Commons, voters heard contenders for local, state and national offices express their opinions and views on numerous issues at the Stanly County Chamber of Commerce Candidates Forum.

Kathy Almond, Chamber president, welcomed those in attendance and called for a moment of silence in memory of former Stanly County Commissioner and Albemarle City Council member Ed Underwood, who passed away on Sunday.

She then introduced moderator Michael Riemann, who explained the format by which candidates would have two minutes each to answer questions, with candidates alternating their order of response.

The following is a summary of the candidates and questions, and their responses.

Albemarle City Council, District 2
Incumbent Benton Dry (D)
Challenger Shirley Lowder (R)

Question 1: A quarter-cent sales tax referendum with funds earmarked for school safety will be on the ballot in November. Do you or do you not support this tax, and why?

Both candidates voiced support for the sales tax.

Lowder noted that in her 35 years in education she observed a number of issues that could not be addressed because of a lack of funding, and expressed her hopes that passage of the referendum would provide the schools with what she called “an extra smack” toward improving facilities and security.

Dry referred to the importance of protecting students, and how times have changed since many voters were in school. He opined that while the school system is “in trouble,” public support of the referendum would be a “step in the right direction to protect the most important resource we have, our children.”

Question 2: Several announcements have been made recently regarding economic development in downtown Albemarle. What is your assessment of downtown development and its success or failure?

Both candidates agreed that the presence of Pfeiffer University in downtown will be a positive step.

Dry referred to how recent and still-to-come improvements have benefitted the downtown area, noting a number of elements of the Streetscape Plan adopted by the current council, and how the improvements act as a motivating factor for owners of downtown properties to keep them attractive and in good repair. He predicted, “we are going to have a great future downtown.”

Lowder noted that while downtown development is important, it is also expensive, and that the city should take care in the projects it chooses within the downtown.

She also noted that future development spearheaded by Pfeiffer’s presence will be a boost to Albemarle, saying “there is nothing like a college town.”

Question 3: The City of Albemarle offers multiple services to its citizens. What are the strengths and weaknesses of those services?

Albemarle’s services were described in positive terms by each candidate.
Lowder noted that while she has received some complaints from citizens, she has no first-hand knowledge of any shortcomings in city services, and encouraged citizens that do to make their voices heard to appropriate city staff.

“I hope that instead of talking about it to other people they will go to City Hall and talk with the people who can explain exactly what is going on,” she said.

Dry referred to the dedication and hard work of city staff during the recent hurricanes and flooding, as well as the scope of city services compared to many larger cities.

“We have great people who make these services extremely important to each of us,” he said. “I interface with these people daily and they are, without a doubt, the best.”

Albemarle City Council, District 4
Incumbent Chris Whitley (R)
Challenger David Morgan (D)

Question 1: A quarter-cent sales tax referendum with funds earmarked for school safety will be on the ballot in November. Do you or do you not support this tax, and why?

Both Morgan and Whitley support the referendum.

Morgan noted that all surrounding counties have adopted the quarter-cent levy, and that as a result Stanly citizens are actually supporting other school systems when they go out of town, but not supporting their own at home. He also cited the importance of county commissioners using the tax revenue as additional funding rather than using it to replace funds presently allotted to the schools. He said commissioners should “continue their funding at the same level, or increase it, instead of trading off those sales tax funds for funds from the general budget.”

Whitley, who served three terms as a school board member, urged the public to support the tax regardless of their views on school system structure or policy, terming that “a separate issue.” He noted the importance of school security, saying, “the facts are we have school buildings open with students in them, and we need to do a better job of securing and controlling who comes on our campuses.”

He also recommended that citizens wishing to see a detailed accounting of how the funds would be spent should refer to the Stanly County Schools website.

Question 2: Adequate low income housing and shelter is frequently a problem for cities. How do you assess the success or failure of Albemarle in this area?

Whitley described and cited how Albemarle Department of Public Housing works to meet these needs, as well as citing the redevelopment of the old Central Elementary School facility into apartments.

Morgan provided statistics on the number of Albemarle citizens who fall below the poverty line, and expressed concerns with the current council’s spending on the Central Elementary project.

Both agreed that new and higher-paying jobs are a major need.

The structure and programs of the city’s public housing department were covered by Whitley, who described the city’s two public housing apartment facilities as well as the HUD Section 8 housing program. He also noted that renovation and development of the Central School Apartments, although not a public housing program, has helped meet the needs of a number of low-income citizens.

Morgan noted that 25 percent of Albemarle’s citizens live below poverty level, which is 10 percent higher than the state average. While he described the renovation of Central School into apartments as “wonderful,” he noted that “it came at a price,” noting the city’s $450,000, 30-year no-interest loan to the developer of the apartments and the costs of renovation and rental of the auditorium as being “a little overboard.”

Question 3: The City of Albemarle offers economic development parks and sites. What is the potential for those parks and sites in terms of attracting business and industry?

The importance of attracting business and industry was evident in each candidate’s response, but their views differed in the importance of providing properties for new businesses.

Morgan listed a number of properties that have been purchased by Albemarle for the purpose of economic development, such as the Prime Power Park, the Wiscassett Mill property and the Albemarle Business Center, and noted the amounts spent on the Wiscassett property and the Albemarle Business Center for various studies and engineering. He referred to his time as a county commissioner as well, noting, “when I was a county commissioner, we brought in 10 new industries and hundreds of good-paying jobs, and we had no industrial park.”

He concluded by saying, “you have to be smart about what you bring in and what you go after … I think I have the experience to bring some good-paying jobs to the people of Albemarle.”

Whitley noted the Albemarle Business Center, a 282-acre tract on U.S. Highway 52, was purchased in part because, “we were not even being considered by potential businesses due to the lack of industrial sites.”

He also noted that while “total development costs for the park are $14 million,” it “will be a multi-year project and will be funded partially by grants and sale of property.”

Whitley also noted that the city has already received a $750,000 grant for development of the site. He went on to note that expenses for development of the Wiscassett Property into a sports complex are “on hold,” but that design, engineering and demolition done on the site are “one-time expenses and won’t be incurred again when the project does proceed.”

He also noted that the leasing of 10 acres of Rock Creek Park for a treetop challenge course will “bring in visitors on a regional basis.”

Stanly County Sheriff
Jeff Crisco (R)
Oscar (Sonny) Hinson (D) (Absent from forum)

Question 1: The N.C. Legislature passed a raise in the age at which an individual can be tried as an adult from 16 to 18. Will this law have an effect on the rate of recidivism (return to jail), which is currently very high?

Crisco noted that the exact wording of the law is still being developed, and that “it will only apply to specific misdemeanors and felonies,” but that the law is still being written.

He also noted studies show 68 percent of inmates released are re-arrested within three years, and that within five years the number jumps to 77 percent.

He suggested working together with the District Attorney’s office to identify “alternative sentences” that would help cut down on repeat offenders, as well as working together with Probation and Parole in monitoring offenders who are likely to become repeat offenders.

Question 2: Naloxone (Narcan) is frequently touted as a solution to opioid overdose, but its application can have positive and negative results. Please elaborate and state your position on its use.

Crisco noted Stanly County’s ranking of first in the state in opioid overdoses is reason for law enforcement to be trained in use of Narcan. He reminded listeners that “law enforcement is usually first on the scene,” to an overdose, and the antidote “can’t harm someone if an overdose is not the cause of the medical condition.” The only negative to providing Narcan is its cost, said Crisco, but he also noted grants and non-profit organizations can facilitate its distribution.

Question 3: Recent high profile cases nationally have involved police and persons with mental disabilities, and the results of these interactions sometimes lead to death. Would you suggest special training for your officers in order to deal with these situations? Please indicate why or why not.

“Training is paramount,” said Crisco.

He noted that, if elected, he will encourage all employees to be involved in as many training opportunities as possible. He also noted that he, as well as his selected chief deputy, are certified as instructors in numerous fields and could conduct various required training. Crisco also noted that such training is important to veterans as well as new hires, and develops confidence as well as broadening one’s knowledge base.

US House of Representatives, NC District 8
Incumbent Richard Hudson (R) (Absent from forum)
Challenger Frank McNeill (D)

Question 1: Recently, tariffs have been imposed on goods imported into the United States. Trading partners have reciprocated. What is your position on this action, and what impact do you think the action will have on businesses in Stanly County.

“I don’t think it was a good idea to begin a tariff war,” said McNeill, stating he believes in a free market and free enterprise.

He cited that commodity prices of cotton, corn and soybeans have dropped sharply since the implementation of tariffs, and noted the tariffs have created a problem in his own business, with the cost of steel propane tanks having risen 28 percent.

“Newton’s third law of physics tells us that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and I think that’s what we are seeing,” McNeill said. “You put a tariff on to try to help one industry, and it may help that industry, but it’s going to have an adverse effect on another industry when retaliation takes place, and it most definitely will take place. As I said, free enterprise and free markets is a much better way to go.”

Question 2: There is a bill in the house called the “Restore our Parks and Public Lands Act” that has bipartisan support. The bill would set aside one half of federal income from energy production on federal lands and offshore production and devote it to deferred maintenance of federal parks and lands. Are you in favor of this bill, and why or why not?

McNeill said, “I am in favor of this bill,” citing the importance of addressing the backlog of maintenance at all national parks and forests, such as the Uwharrie National Forest.

“It has very strong bipartisan support, and I think it’s an excellent bill,” he said, “being funded by revenues coming into the federal government for energy development on public lands. That’s a great use of the money, and I certainly support it.”

Question 3: The current administration recently withdrew from the Paris Accord climate agreement pact, arguing that it would stifle businesses and jobs. The most recent UN report issued by foremost climate scientists concluded that we must eliminate the use of fossil fuels in the next decade or two in order to prevent the earth from reaching temperatures which could result in dire consequences. Where do you stand on this issue and why?

While McNeill noted the importance of conservation and environmental protection, he described the Paris Accord as not demanding results.

“The Paris Accords did not force us to meet any standards. It was a voluntary effort by countries all across the world, and each country picked the targets they were going to try to attain. And if we don’t meet those targets, there was no penalty,” said McNeill. “We are borrowing the use of the world while we live here, and I think it’s imperative that we pass it along in better shape to our children and grandchildren than we found it. After all, President Reagan said ‘Conservatives conserve.’ ”

NC Senate District 33
Incumbent Carl Ford (R)
Challenger Arin Wilhelm (D)

Question 1: The legislature has been increasing teacher salaries over the past few years. Teachers have lobbied that the increases are not coming fast enough and that N.C. teacher salaries rank 37th in the nation. Where do you stand on this issue?

Ford touted what he termed as an upward trend in teacher pay over the past five years, and noted that comparing teacher pay across states can be misleading.

“Average teacher pay is something that you’ve got to look at,” he said. “I have a friend who teaches in New Jersey who makes $75,000 a year, but he is thinking about moving here to teach, because even with the pay cut the cost of living is so much lower here.”

Wilhelm said: “One of my top priorities is to improve our education system. It’s my belief that educators hold the most important job in our country … they are responsible for the education and future of our state and nation … and they should be respected and compensated as such.”

He related a personal story of how his youngest son went almost half a year with substitute teachers in his first grade class because his regular teacher left two months into the school year to move to a state with higher teacher pay.

“North Carolina is chasing the national average, but do we want to be average? We need to hire the best, and in order to do that, we need to pay well,” he said.

Question 2: There is a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that changes how judicial vacancies are filled. Those in favor say the governor has too few restraints on how to pick judges and sometimes put political cronies on the bench. They say the change would reduce the political considerations in choosing judges and improve the quality of the judiciary. Opponents say the measure is yet another step to transfer power from the governor to the legislature and say the process would still be political and would require candidates to lobby legislators whose laws they would one day have to rule on. Where do you stand on this issue?

Wilhelm cited the separation of powers and the agreement of all five living N.C. governors as being why he opposes the amendment.

“There is a separation of powers, and by moving the appointment of judicial vacancies to the legislature it takes away from the governor’s powers which were originally created to establish that separation of powers,” Wilhelm said. “In addition, all five of the state’s living governors are against the amendment as well.”

Ford feels the amendment will give power to the electorate, citing the governor’s right to appoint usurps the voice of the voters in areas that may not have supported the governor.

“Right now, if a county commissioner or state representative dies or resigns the local executive committee of that party comes together and replaces them with someone from the same party,” Ford said. “But, if there was a Republican governor and 20 Democrat judges pass away in two years, he could replace them with all Republicans, and vice-versa. I believe this puts more power into the hands of the people.”

Question 3 (asked only to Ford): In the last biennium of the N.C. General Assembly, 1,922 bills were filed. Legislators have been known to say there is no way to read and understand all the bills that are filed. In your opinion, is there a better way for the legislature to conduct business?

Ford admitted that while there may be a better way to conduct business, “there are only slight improvements” that could be made to the process such as cutting back the number of bills each legislator could introduce from 15 to 10.

“I think the checks and balances that are in place are good for the people,” he said.

Question 3 (asked only to Wilhelm): There is a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that will strengthen protections for victims of crime, establish certain absolute basic rights for victims, and insure the enforcement of these rights. It has bipartisan support, but opponents say it will be expensive, difficult to implement, will slow down court proceedings and that protections are already in place. Are you in favor of this amendment and why or why not?

Wilhelm opposes the amendment, stating his belief that it should be introduced as a bill rather than put before the electorate in referendum form.

“It’s not an amendment,” he said, “it would be law. Plus the cost ($30 million annually) would be difficult to implement. Since the general assembly does have bipartisan support for it, let’s pass it as a law there and work out the kinks there.”

Toby Thorpe is a freelance contributor for The Stanly News & Press.